What if someone told you that a single plant, cultivated around the world for the past 10,000 years, is being used today in the United States to make rope, clothing, food, paper, building materials, cosmetics and bioplastics? What if this plant produced more fiber per acre than cotton — while using less water — and more pulp per acre than wood? What if this plant was such a good soil remediator that it was being used to clean up the soil at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear accident? Sounds like a wonder plant, right?
And then what if someone told you that industrial production of this wonder plant was illegal in this country?
A student in the College of Natural Resources doesn’t think that state of affairs makes much sense, and he has formed a campus organization to work toward re-legalizing American industrial production of Cannabis sativa L., also known as hemp.
“Our society’s pattern of development over the past 50 years has gotten us all these great things that we have, but we know it’s not sustainable,” says Andrew Klein, a senior in natural resource policy and founder of the Raleigh Hemp Society. “We can’t go on this way for the next 50 years. So I believe that one thing we can do to help the future be more sustainable is to start growing hemp.”
Klein’s group will present Bringing it Home, a documentary about the benefits of industrial hemp production, at 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19, in the Witherspoon Student Center Cinema. The film’s producer and director, Linda Booker, will be on hand to participate in a post-screening discussion. Admission is $3, which includes one raffle ticket for a giveaway of hemp-based products. You can learn more about Bringing it Home online.
The first thing Klein wants you to know about hemp is that it’s been woven into the fabric of American history since before this country was founded. “When British colonists first came over here, the crown required them by law to grow hemp,” he says. “Early drafts of the Constitution were written on hemp. Betsy Ross’s first American flag was made from hemp. Hemp is as American as you can get.”
The problem with hemp is that it’s taxonomically identical to marijuana, so that when marijuana was made illegal in 1937, hemp went to the jailhouse with it. The close relationship between hemp and marijuana naturally raises a question: Aren’t attempts to legalize hemp just marijuana legalization attempts in disguise?
“You would not believe how many people have asked me that question,” Klein says. “What most people don’t realize is that hemp and marijuana are not actually the same plant. They’re different cultivars of Cannabis sativa L. The main difference between them is their level of THC,” the psychoactive substance that gives marijuana its potency. Marijuana typically contains 5 to 10 percent THC, whereas hemp contains only 0.3 percent to 1 percent — far too little to permit any sort of recreational use.
In countries where hemp production is legal, regulators use lab tests to verify that what’s in the fields is hemp, not marijuana.
“You could smoke an entire field of hemp, and you would die of carbon monoxide poisoning before you ever got high,” Klein says. “Hemp is not a drug. Unfortunately, a lot of people think hemp advocacy is a stoner thing. I started the Raleigh Hemp Society to counteract that stigma. Marijuana legalization is not my goal at all.”
If Klein isn’t interested in legalizing pot, then what drew him to work toward legalization of hemp?
“I’m studying natural resource policy because I care about sustainable development,” he replies. “In all my research on sustainability, I kept reading about things that were sustainable but that don’t make money. It seems like the sustainable things always require sacrifices. So I wanted to find something to support that would be both economic and environmental. And I think that’s hemp.”
Hemp Goes to War
If you want proof of the benefits of hemp, you don’t have to take Klein’s word for it. Just ask the U.S. government.
“The best informational piece I’ve seen on the usefulness of hemp as a fiber is Hemp for Victory, the government’s own propaganda for it,” he says. After hemp became illegal, the United States imported cordage fibers from Southeast Asian countries, but the outbreak of World War II disrupted those supply lines at the very moment when the Navy needed rope more than ever — 34,000 feet of it for every battleship on the seas, according to Hemp for Victory.
So the federal government instituted a special program that would allow farmers to register for a license to grow hemp, and in 1942 they made Hemp for Victory to convince farmers to cultivate hemp for fiber production. The film gives a brief history of hemp cultivation, describes how to obtain the required license, discusses planting and harvesting techniques, and lists some of hemp’s many uses by the armed services.
Klein says the clearest indicator that hemp production can be safely legalized is the list of countries currently producing it, including Canada, Australia, Russia, China, and more than a dozen European countries. All the hemp goods currently manufactured and sold in the United States must use hemp imported from these countries, which significantly increases costs while shutting American farmers out of a revenue opportunity, he says.
Hemp advocates scored a legal victory earlier this year when President Obama signed the latest farm bill into law. The law contains a provision defining hemp as separate from marijuana and allowing states to legalize hemp cultivation, but only for research purposes. So far 18 states have legalized hemp cultivation for research, including Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina. Klein hopes that North Carolina will soon do the same and that the subsequent research will lead to legalization of hemp production in North Carolina and across the country.
“I don’t want hemp to become a political issue because, frankly, I’m sick of politics,” Klein says. “I don’t want it to become a Democrat thing or a Republican thing. I think hemp is something that all parties can get behind because it can benefit all people.”